What is fiscal conservatism?
Officially, it’s the language of serious-minded politicians everywhere who believe in spending within our means, keeping a balanced budget, and ensuring fiscal stability for the next generation of Americans.
In reality, it’s always been a toxic blend of bland aphorisms and self-aggrandizing moral precepts designed to protect the power of the wealthy and limit their responsibility to the nation’s poor. But usually this outright hostility to the less fortunate is masked a little more than the new House GOP’s most recently approved budget, which would shave an astonishing $5.3 trillion off the federal budget over the next decade – about two-thirds of it from the poor and lower middle class, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Among the cuts are eviscerating slashes to health care (including the 5,000th attempt to repeal Obamacare), food stamps, Pell Grants, and discretionary spending. For people who claim to care about the impact of big government taxation on people’s lives, the GOP budget sure as hell goes out of its way to eliminate key provisions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which the CBPP says would send 1.8 million people into poverty and worsen it for 14.6 million others.
The Senate version isn’t much better, asking for $4.7 trillion in cuts, again with 2/3rds of them directed at the poor. That’s the plan supported by the supposed adults in the room.
It’s unclear to me how creating millions of new poor people and kicking the bucket out from under over ten million others is in any way fiscally “responsible.” It just creates wholly unnecessary suffering. But just in case you were foolish enough to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt (perhaps getting Big Government out of the way would usher in a new Golden Age!), consider that the House GOP plan actually includes around $200 billion in increased military spending. In fact, the New York Times reports that on this one sole measure, they actually intended to outspend Obama:
“Republicans barely discussed the severity of the spending cuts and policy changes they envisioned. Instead, they split over how much spending they would pile into a war account that is supposed to be reserved for emergencies overseas.”
As the CBPP notes, Congress left about $1 trillion a year in complicated tax expenditures (“deductions, exclusions, credits, and other preferences”) that disproportionately benefit the richest Americans completely untouched. But they did trip over themselves to ensure the military is as stuffed to the gills with cash as possible, despite insisting that America can somehow no longer afford basic services supporting the least wealthy Americans. For the GOP, no amount of defense spending is too much.
So essentially: screw the poor, fund some wars.
Cuts don’t magically make government more efficient, by the way. Take the IRS – one of the Republican Party’s continued objects of ridicule – which absorbed 17% budget cuts since 2010. As a result, the amount of time a taxpayer calling the IRS spends on hold went from an average of 10 minutes to a staggering 28 minutes. Food stamp cuts would actually decrease the overall efficiency of government spending, since food stamps help prevent costly childhood obesity, help at-risk Americans avoid slipping into poverty and stimulates the agricultural sector. Studies have shown food stamp program see little real abuse. Medicare is much more efficient at reducing medical costs than private insurance. Cuts to health care programs or changing them into block grants won’t magically save money – it will cut benefits and cover fewer people, resulting in a higher overall cost when the former beneficiaries seek out expensive alternatives to a doctor’s office like the emergency room.
In Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana and other states, Republican tax cuts for the rich and massive cuts to services have resulted in nine-figure deficits in state budgets. That’s pretty much the opposite of “fiscal responsibility.”
As much as Republicans like to pretend that this budget is somehow about getting Big Government out of the way so the economy can flourish, somehow I suspect that the real intent of this budget is a thinly veiled “fuck you” directed at the nation’s poor. This isn’t really a battle over “fiscal responsibility” (remember that Republicans tend to explode the budget when they’re in control of D.C.). It’s a battle over whether the federal government has a responsibility to assist the poor and middle class at all, and perhaps even a deliberate attempt to inflict some more pain on the struggling.
This intentional rush to put some more hurt on society’s most vulnerable people is yet another reminder that Republicans are the party of racism, classism and other kinds of rage directed at “those people.” Last year, Paul Krugman noted that “one odd consequence of our still-racialized politics is that conservatives are still, in effect, mobilizing against the bums on welfare even though both the bums and the welfare are long gone or never existed.” Despite the fact that wages are still not doing very well (in 2014, one paper estimated they were down 23% since 2008) and the job market is only beginning to seriously recover from the Great Recession, Republicans still believe that the real causes of poverty are idleness, laziness and poor moral character. Their only real solution is to kick all of “those people” out on their ass, and maybe gloat about it a little at the same time.
Fiscal conservatism has long enjoyed an unearned reputation as being the supposedly serious alternative to wasteful tax-and-spend liberalism. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, it’s becoming increasingly clear that austerity has nothing to do with responsibly stewarding the country’s resources for future generations, and everything to do with their disdain and disgust for the poor, middle class, minorities and handout-taking parasites – you know, half the country.